WORLD sport’s third-biggest event, the Rugby World Cup, finally begins in Japan today after what appears like a very long four-year wait.
It means that any other counter-attraction taking place somewhere else in this sport — such as an African contest happening in some obscure provincial town this weekend — will be viewed with some kind of contempt by rugby lovers around the world.
I was tempted to say its contempt it probably deserves, to use the old adage. But in all fairness — Kenya versus Zimbabwe tomorrow — in the East African country’s fourth largest city of Nakuru, is an important sideshow in the matrix of global rugby in that it is a battle of two teams that really ought to be in the World Cup.
A single direct qualification spot reserved for Africa has always handed the advantage to Namibia — thanks to their better national structure, better training, better game-plan and better man-management.
But the Namibians, who open their campaign against Italy on Sunday, have not always enjoyed a free ride to the World Cup. On a few occasions they have hugely benefited from good fortune.
Take, for instance, in 2014 in Madagascar at Africa’s 2015 World Cup qualification tournament. In the years leading up to it, Kenya had done admirably well in the quest of a first-ever World Cup appearance for the East African nation. A significant amount of money was invested in the dream, national structures were boosted, high-performance training camps were held and quality preparatory games were played against some of the tier two sides of world rugby.
Come the qualifiers in 2014, Kenya were rewarded for their ingenuity and hard-work of years with an immensely deserved win over the Namibians in Madagascar.
With home side Madagascar losing the four-team contest to everybody, it meant Kenya now needed a bonus point win over Zimbabwe to book a historic World Cup ticket to England 2015.
But to their credit, Zimbabwe themselves had not been resting on their laurels in hunt for their first World Cup place in over two decades.
Having only lost quite narrowly to Namibia, it meant the Sables also needed to beat Kenya by a bonus point, in the two teams’ final contest, to clinch a berth at the World Cup.
As for the Namibians, with fate out of their hands, they could only sit and hope that their two African rivals did not defeat each other by a bonus point — a scenario that would leave them with the less daunting task of beating Madagascar by the required 53-point winning margin to complete a dramatic smash-and-grab mission.
As fate would have it, this was precisely how the drama unfolded.
A workmanlike performance saw Zimbabwe stun Kenya with a three-try 28-10 win, but cruelly short of the bonus point, and it was Namibia again going to the World Cup after thrashing hapless hosts Madagascar 89-10.
In fact, the less pessimistic Zimbabwean fan felt Namibia still had all to do in their final match and that the Malagasy — with nothing but pride to play for — would at least limit the damage to allow the Sables to sneak through to England 2015.
But the Namibians would go on a rampage, racking up the 53-point tally before half-time, shattering Zimbabwe’s dream in ruthless fashion.
Experienced Zimbabwe lock Jan Ferreira later told me of how throughout the Madagascar-Namibia game he had sat in the stadium parking lot, observing the scoreboard through an opening, as Namibia’s score swelled and swelled until reality finally hit hard that he may never play in the World Cup in his career.
In the end, Zimbabwe was left to rue a missed chance in the last moments of the Kenya clash where kicking into touch from a penalty would have probably delivered the much-needed fourth try, courtesy of a rolling maul that had worked perfectly for the Sables throughout the tie.
Instead, the Sables went for the three-pointer before the referee blew the final whistle at 28-10 with the majority of Zimbabwe’s players not sure if they had qualified for the World Cup or not, whether to celebrate or not.
The role of Sables captain Daniel Hondo and technical adviser Liam Middleton in the fateful decision would become the subject of much public debate, if not vilification, but team manager Brighton Chivandire — ever the voice of reason — told this newspaper in 2017 how the entire group stuck together afterwards and took collective responsibility for the very hurtful episode.
Explosive Sables back Tangai “Too Bad” Nemadire, who had a memorable outing in the Madagascar tournament, said it was a devastating double tragedy in his life as later that month, July of 2014, his lookalike young brother — 23-year-old budding journalist Zecheaus Nemadire — was attacked at night and gruesomely killed by robbers on his way home.
“Too Bad” is an ever-jovial chap, but also a very tough guy, as those who know him will testify. Not a lot of things on this earth seem to faze such characters. But there are instances when even people like him are reminded that they are normal human beings who have emotions.
After 2014, the rugby career of one of Zimbabwe’s most naturally talented sportsmen of our time was never the same again. First, it was missing out on a much-desired World Cup ticket that was within touching distance, just one more try away, and who did they look up to the most to provide the tries than Tangai Nemadire in every team that this unbelievable athlete played for.
Then it was the harsh blow of losing a beloved sibling in a senseless death through one of the most unimaginable human acts of cruelty — taking a promising young life in cold blood all because of a laptop and a few bank notes.
Immune one might be to some of the vicious punches that life can throw, not even the toughest among us can so easily heal of the emotional scars of such a horrifying family tragedy.
The scintillating Nemadire, who was still mourning his brother’s death, was not there a few weeks later for the Sables’ last-gasp bid to qualify for the 2015 World Cup.
Zimbabwe, having emerged runners-up to Namibia in Madagascar, still had an outside chance of securing a final spot to England via a World Cup repechage.
But European side Russia, who the Sables played in difficult conditions in Siberia, were always going to be an uphill battle.
The Sables fought gallantly but lost the repechage semi-final 23-15 to the Russians in August 2014.
The repechage will always prove a tricky route for Africa’s teams for as long as there is no regular contact between them and second or third tier sides of international rugby.
Kenya, who came second to Namibia in Africa’s qualifiers last year after Zimbabwe’s bad experience with former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, did not find it any easier either in a changed repechage format last year. The East Africans were out of their depth against Hong Kong, Germany and tournament winners Canada in a four-team race in France in November.
But the visibly improved quality of rugby as well as the dedication to growth in countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya would have meant that the global rugby authorities were not going to misfire horribly had they taken appropriate measures to accommodate such sides as ours in a World Cup like this one starting today.
It is refreshing, though, to hear that the governing body of the sport, World Rugby, is seriously considering expanding the tournament to a 24-team event, up from the current 20, beginning in 2023.
Giving lip-service to the idea will be a huge disappointment to the rest of the world, but not so much to some rugby followers in the leading nations who oppose this proposed reform.
Those speaking out against a larger World Cup argue that they fear for the integrity of the game and the tournament due to the real possibility of one-sided contests.
It is a somewhat lopsided view, in my opinion, because it only looks at things from just one angle.
True, while Namibia have monopolised Africa’s single qualification slot for 20 years, they have been going to the World Cup itself just to make up the numbers.
Goodness knows, the mighty All Blacks and Springboks will give the Namibians quite a spanking in Pool B at this World Cup.
Six Nations member Italy will have a real go too at the African side, as so will repechage qualifiers Canada.
But, to argue their corner, how many games does Namibia get to play outside the World Cup against quality international opposition for them to be able to play to their true potential at the biggest stage?
One shudders to imagine, too, the level of Zimbabwe and Kenya if they were exposed to a fair share of Test matches against some of the first and second tier sides of world rugby.
This, to me, will promptly dispel the misplaced fear of too many mismatches if the World Cup was to be enlarged.
Apart from making it a World Cup truly representative of the planet — as well as the great opportunity to spread the game into new markets — gradually the smaller teams will begin to come out of their own at the tournament.
This is how Japan was able to shock the Springboks the last time out in England in 2015.
Football’s World Cup is a very good example.
The African teams in particular only started to proceed further into the later stages of the tournament after the World Cup was expanded.
World Rugby must not bury its head in the sand and ignore the obvious potential of the rest of the world in this wonderful sport.
We have seen that potential here in Africa over the last 10 or so years and those privileged to be in Nakuru tomorrow, I bet my bottom dollar, will see it again at its fullest.
Undefeated Zimbabwe have already clinched the Victoria Cup with one game to go against the Kenyans tomorrow. But make no mistake, with bragging rights and rankings at stake in this old African rivalry, this is no dead rubber as you know it.
That there will be no shortage of motivation on both sides is guaranteed.
Simply put, as we sit back to enjoy six-week-long action of World Cup rugby, Kenya and Zimbabwe will remind us tomorrow of the kind of African flavour the tournament is missing.